Until the IDF arrived at Ramat Hovav

Until the IDF arrived at Ramat Hovav
Haaretz - June 17, 2005
By Dan Rabinowitz

At the beginning of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's term, the government dealt energetically with the development of the Negev. The result was an ambitious program for reinforcing existing communities and encouraging various groups to invest in the south.

One of the potential anchors for this program was the Israel Defense Forces, which promised to transfer bases and facilities to the Negev. The concrete plan that was actually formulated is called the "Bahad City" ("bahad" is an IDF acronym for a training base), and its main feature was the transfer of training bases from the center of the country to one site in the Negev. The funding is supposed to come from the sale of the lands where the bases are now located, mainly in the area of Tzrifin. In short, the real estate profit to be realized by the army in the center of the country will be directed to the Negev, and will bring about fair distribution and benefit to the areas on the periphery.

The army went out to locate a suitable area for Bahad City, where up to 15,000 soldiers will be living, and chose the Negev Junction area, between Be'er Sheva and Yeruham. The planning procedure has in effect been completed, but the IDF woke up to an annoying problem at the last moment: the environmental pollution originating in Ramat Hovav. It turns out that Bahad City, the edges of which are located on the map only nine kilometers southeast of the boundary of the Ramat Hovav Regional Council, will be exposed to the strong stench that has been arising for 30 years from the national site for poisonous waste disposal.

The army, like the army, acted quickly and with determination. It froze the plan for the Negev Junction and began to examine alternative sites. That made the Prime Minister's Office nervous, because the officials feared a domino effect. If it is discovered that the army is boycotting the region because of pollution, that will also keep away civilian groups that are considering investment, and an embarrassing situation will be created: Not far from the Yamin Plain, which has been closed for almost 50 years because of the reactor in Dimona, there will be another empty and sterile area of 150,000 dunams that nobody wants.

The concern in the prime minister's surroundings has been translated into pressure on the Environment Ministry to clean out the stables at Ramat Hovav. The Finance Ministry has provided budgets, a committee of directors has been established - and alongside it a prime ministerial monitoring committee - and the Environment Ministry has gone into action. To judge by reports from environmentalists, who have been keeping track of what is done in Ramat Hovav for years, there are already positive initial results. The handling of the existing facilities has been improved, and there are operative plans that are supposed to bring about a substantial change in the coming years. Meanwhile, the army is waiting for positive signs on the ground before it takes the Bahad City plan out of the freezer.

The Ramat Hovav Industrial Local Council and the sinful waste treatment procedures that were practiced there are a free gift, worth billions of shekels, that the government granted to the corporations of heavy industry and the chemical industry, at the expense of all of us. Now, 30 years and a polluted Negev after that mistake, we are beginning to see something that looks like repair, with the IDF, as in the Kishon River, in the dual role of victim and savior.

But behind this story arises another disturbing and shocking question, like a poisonous fume. Why was there a need for the virtual presence of 15,000 of our best Jewish young people in order to get started with this purification initiative in Ramat Hovav? A reliable epidemiological study, which was carried out by the Health Ministry, has long pointed to the fact that 23,000 Bedouin who live in Wadi Naim, Wadi Mashash, Tarabin al-Sanaa and Segev Shalom, closer to Ramat Hovav, suffer from health problems that originate in the waste disposal sites there. How many lost fetuses of the Azazma tribe could have been saved had this country, which has yet to build even one decent clinic for those tens of thousands of Bedouin, used its money and its resources to repair the defects?